Saturday Nov 4. If you've been following or dipped into Salut! Live's series, you may know that was the day on which a special concert was staged on London's South Bank to celebrate the life of Bert Jansch, the immensely influential singer-songwriter and guitarist who would have been 80 the day before. Sadly, he died in 2011 and the series commemorating his work can be found at https://www.salutlive.com/bert-jansch/
It was one of two concerts on that evening that I bitterly regret having missed (Fairport Convention in Twickenham being the other). But Andrew Curry, who deserves enormous credit for the idea of running the series and for his superb contributions, once again volunteered to submit a review. And it's never too late; Andrew has done the concert, and the memory of Bert, proud ....
Image: Chris Barber. https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisbarber/
Bert’s 80th birthday party
Bert Jansch at 80 at the Royal Festival Hall: 23 songs, played by 29 musicians in different combinations during the course of the evening. To fit it all in, the gig started at seven and the comedian Stewart Lee - [love his Observer column - Ed] was engaged as compere to help keep things moving apace.
The line up: There were some ever-presents at the celebration concerts that have been held for Bert Jansch since he died, including Bernard Butler, Robert Plant and Martin Simpson. Some old friends, including Jacqui McShee, still in good voice at 79, Kathryn Williams and James Yorkston. And a welcome host of younger performers, among them the Bert Jansch Foundation Fellows Sarathy Korwar and Sam Grassie of Avocet, as well as the singers Sam Lee and Brigid Mae Power, and the guitarist Louis Cooper.
The experience: According to some reports, the 70th birthday event sprawled a little, perhaps trying too hard to recreate the authentic atmosphere of Les Cousins. Stewart Lee set the expectation early on that the 80th would be different.
”We have to be out of here by 10.30. So we’re not going to have any extended tuning-up on stage, or anyone telling lengthy anecdotes about what Tony Capstick said to Ewan MacColl in 1963, or maybe it was the other way around.”
One of the other issues for this kind of tribute concert is that no one is on stage for long enough to build a rapport with the audience. I admired the way the organisers - Eat Your Own Ears, Earth Records and the Bert Jansch Foundation - had sequenced the acts to build some kind of musical flow.
The first few - Jacqui McShee with Kevin Dempsey and Mike Pigott, Martin Simpson and Louis Cooper, and Brigid Mae Power and Steve Gunn - were all folk numbers, among them I’ve Got A Feeling, Angie and She Moved Through The Fair.
Bernard Butler changed the tone with a set with Caimin Gilmore that included a fine electric version of Fresh as a Sweet Sunday Morning; James Yorkston, playing with bassist Jon Thorne and the Indian singer Ranjana Ghatak, again brought a different sound, before Robert Plant’s Saving Grace finished the half with a pair of songs that included It Don’t Bother Me.
Quieter after the interval, when the singer Sam Lee took the stage, even if his second song had a quite a big band around him, then a guitar interlude, of which more later, before it moved into Sarathy Korwar’s trio (with Tamar Osborn and Danny Keane) playing radically reworked jazz versions of The Black Swan and Osprey. The half closed out with Kathryn Williams - who got to sing Needle of Death and Crimson Moon - and a reprise from Saving Grace and Jacqui McShee.
Maybe the final ensemble version of Strolling Down The Highway was a bit ragged - you really need people to step forward and take the lead on the verses - but by that time the audience had enjoyed themselves enough that they cut them some slack.
And Stewart Lee helped with all of this, bringing an energy to the stage every time he appeared. Although he insisted he wasn’t there to tell jokes, he couldn’t help himself, and his concert persona, of the nerdier-than-thou folk enthusiast [this may not have been a persona — Ed] certainly worked.
He explained that he’d only ever had one conversation with Jansch, at a Pentangle gig in the 90s at the Half Moon in Putney, in south west London. Recognising the opening bars of Sally Free and Easy, he had punched the air and said "Yes", quite loudly. Jansch stopped playing and said from the stage, "calm down".
Some highlights: It was a fine evening, without any extended longeurs between acts. The stage management was slick. Among all of this, a few personal highlights:
- The start of the second half, with Sam Lee singing Blackwaterside a capella, emerging out of the dark as the stage lights slowly came up, was a lovely piece of theatre
- It was a thrill to hear Jacqui McShee sing a couple of Pentangle classics—her final number was Travelling Song.
- Saving Grace have a very tight sound and lifted the place whenever they were on stage. Their second set, with the Bert Jansch/Anne Briggs song Go Your Own Way and The Cuckoo Song, was particularly good, with Suzi Dion sharing vocals with Robert Plant. (And kudos to the woman who was overheard in the interval, after their first set, asking her friend who’d just been on stage. It seems that even now Robert Plant is still winning new admirers.)
But in some ways the performance that most caught the spirit of the event was the version of Veronica in the second half of the show. The original is slight: a brief instrumental on Jansch’s first record. Here, though, it was played on the five Yamaha guitars that the company had donated to the Bert Jansch Foundation for its outreach work. The guitars were reunited onstage and Bernard Butler played the song with four young guitarists—Chris Brain, Louis Campbell, Daisy Rickman and Sam Grassie. With five players, the song sounded more like a round as it repeated and built. It shimmered.
Bert Jansch wouldn’t have cared much about being remembered. He was always phlegmatic about that kind of thing. But he would have appreciated the songs - and the verve and the range of interpretation that the performers brought to them.
Eat Your Own Ears has released a Bert Jansch 80th Official Playlist to Spotify.